Chinese medicine offers one proven path to emotional balance and harmony for many people who struggle with anxiety or depression. Many people who receive treatment from a licensed acupuncturist experience significant benefit, and don’t need to take psychiatric drugs.
To be clear, acupuncture, qi gong practice and Chinese herbs are not an alternative to therapy, but rather, they can provide an excellent complement that supports the healing work done in therapy. When a person comes into my office presenting a complex and persistent pattern of behaving in ways that undermine their progress and deepen feelings of low self-esteem, a course of therapy is often useful to help the person learn more effective strategies to deal with their lives. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can provide some of those strategies. I do believe that treatment with Chinese medicine is frequently an effective alternative to psychotropic medications, especially for people whose complaints and symptoms are not too severe.
Please don’t think I’m saying that psychotropic medications never have a useful role; there are serious situations where an experienced psychiatrist can prescribe a powerful drug or combination of drugs that might provide more rapid relief than other approaches. Acute psychotic episodes where a person feels extremely suicidal may be situations where short term use of psychiatric drugs will provide more rapid relief of extreme symptoms than treatment with acupuncture and herbs.
I’m not the first person to claim that anti-depressants are over-prescribed in our society. Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic: Psychiatric Drugs, Magic Bullets and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America (Crown Publishers, 2010) should be required reading for every person who prescribes medications and who refers people struggling with emotional problems to psychiatrists. People who complain to their western medicine doctor of feeling low (often with good reason, after the death of a loved one or the break-up of a committed love relationship) may be prescribed a drug because that’s something the doctor can do in a brief visit, and the patient is expecting some tangible “help.” A prescription may be interpreted as “help.” And, it’s possible that the drug may cause a different problem (loss of libido is common), while not addressing the person’s actual condition, which might just be needing somebody to listen to and witness their pain and grief.
People who have found pharmaceutical relief from long-standing emotional problems might balk at any suggestion that they give up what is finally helping them lead more satisfying lives. Given that large numbers of people find these drugs less effective over time or never get satisfying relief of their depression or anxiety, it’s important to offer alternative approaches that have been useful for large numbers of people for centuries before pharmaceuticals were invented. When it proves difficult to stop taking drugs, acupuncture and Chinese herbs can help make the process of cutting back and eventually quitting medications less difficult.
Stephen Cowan, an MD pediatrician who treats children with acupuncture, herbs and other creative strategies, offers a compelling framework to understand how to support different kinds of children to experience greater self-esteem and increased attention for academic tasks in his book Fire Child/Water Child (New Harbinger). Given the potentially life-long problems that can be associated with prolonged use of powerful pharmaceuticals, Cowan’s book could be a worthwhile read for parents and their children’s care-givers.
Most of the evidence that Chinese medicine works to alleviate anxiety and depression comes from a long history of anecdotal evidence. A 2012 review published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry states “…acupuncture may be a safe and effective treatment… (for Major Depressive Disorder, but )… the body of evidence from well-designed studies is limited and further investigation is called for.” The evidence for the health benefits of Qi Gong and Tai Chi is more extensive.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.